Ratto: Sharks' Grind (Molars Included) Begins


Ratto: Sharks' Grind (Molars Included) Begins


The San Jose Sharks are not, by and large, long on surprises. They are who they are, they do what they do. The roster is fairly static, the regular seasons look a lot like each other, and to their tooth-grinding frustration, so do the postseasons.

Ad so it almost is with this edition as well. The goalie turnover from Evgeni Nabokov to The Fightin Ants (-ti Niemi and tero Niittymaki) is interesting, the fight to see who can be the blue line power play specialist in the absence of Rob Blake has its intrigues, and Manny Malhotras departure puts a good deal of pressure on Logan Couture to stand up to full height.

But most of the what the Sharks were is the same . . . with the notable and surprise exception of Joe Thornton, Team Captain.

Thornton got the extra letter on his sweater today, as reported by Comrade Brazil, and for those who believe that being the captain has great import, this is a bit of a jaw-dropper. Thornton is not by nature the guy who grabs the flag and says, Follow me, lads, nor is he known for his inspiring oratory inside the room when things get a little sluggardly.

But there he is anyway, expanding his presence, either because he was the best candidate for the job or because he was the best candidate once Dan Boyle turned the job down, as has been rumored. Either way, this is at least superficially a broadening of the Jumbonian presence in a room has always seemed to function well enough without a demonstrative captain.

Now that, if youre looking for a surprise, is pretty much as good as its going to get.

The rest of the Sharks place in the universe will largely be defined not by their own work, though, but by the shifting sands around them.

Barring significant and persistent injuries, which they havent really been confronted with the last few seasons, they will be at or near the top of the Western Conference race. Patrick Marleau will alternately madden and enchant. Thornton will please and disgruntle. Boyle will ignite and frustrate. Joe Pavelski will be the guy who dominated the early playoff rounds and also the guy who couldnt find his pace in the Chicago series.

In all, they will be about what they usually are, give or take a guy.

But Chicago has been undercut by cap gambles that paid off in a Stanley Cup and were punished with post-parade turmoil. Detroit showed age that needs dealing with internally. Vancouver reloaded after running out of players in the playoffs. Colorado, Los Angeles and Phoenix are supposed to be on the come, Calgary, Nashville and St. Louis are supposed to be on the go.

And somewhere out of that morass will come the team that San Jose has to beat to finally achieve the unachievable June hockey.

Last year, it was Chicago. Before that, Detroit. And sometimes the Sharks didnt even get that far, which is how they came to be known as The Little Engine That Couldnt. Indeed, so few people fancied their chances last year because they were perceived to be who they usually are, the team that finesses its way right onto the golf course.

Instead, they got to the conference final before receiving their just desserts from the mega-loaded Blackhawks. And now, there seems to be a void at the top that they are capable of filling as much as anyone else.

But they need the Fightin Ants to be Nabokov 2.0. They need Couture to break out, and Pavelski to consolidate his gains, and Marleau to be the Marleau of the Chicago series, meshing effort and results. And finally, they need Joe Thornton of all people to rise to whatever it is new captains rise to. The void of Blake is a hard one to quantify, and Thornton does better when you look at his numbers than at his room-filling presence. He likes not to be separated from his teammates by reputation or salary comps, one of the reasons they like him as much as they do.

But he does have to figure out how to make his captaincy work for them, or at least not cause them to shrink. This will be delicate work, and it starts now. It would have started earlier, but the Sharks didnt feel like they needed a designated locker room foreman in the room during training camp; otherwise, they would have named Thornton at the beginning of the process.

The proof of this, and all the other tweaks, starts now in Stockholm in a building that looks like the top half of a football helmet against a team (Columbus) that has barely been on their radar. As always, the season really starts in April, but the grinding begins now.

Including the tooth-grinding.

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun


A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

The price of watching Roger Goodell being booed back to the Bronze Age is a subtle but real one, and one that people will feel very dearly soon enough.

The last great cathartic Super Bowl is now done, with the New England Patriots winning the brilliant and decisive battle to be sports’ new evil empire. In doing so, it rendered Goodell a permanent and risible punch line in National Football League history, the mall cop who wanted the death penalty for littering, and in the words of the song “got what he wanted but he lost what he had.”

True, $40 million a year can make the dissolution of your public persona a reasonably decent tradeoff, but we lost the argument about who won his windmill tilt with the Patriots. It’s done, and he is now permanently and irrevocably a figure of ridicule.

But that’s not the only debating point America lost Sunday night, and while you wouldn’t think it given how much time we are willing to shouting at each other, quality arguments are not easily replaced.

We have almost surely lost the mindless debate about the best quarterback ever, because there is nothing anyone can bring up that the words “Tom Brady” cannot rebut except calling his own plays, and since that is no longer allowed in football, it is a silly asterisk to apply.

We have almost surely lost the equally silly shouter about the best coach ever. Bill Belichick is defiantly not fun, but he has built, improved and bronzed an organizational model that is slowly swallowing the rest of the sport. That and five trophies makes him the equal if not better of the short list of Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry.

Plus, Belichick locked up the most absurd response to a question in coaching history Monday when he said, “As great as today feels . . . we're five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.” Even allowing for Gregg Popovich in-game interviews, the so-grim-he-could-make-a-robot-cry worship-the-process response has now become a cliché. If 2017 prep was so important, he should have skipped yesterday’s game, and he definitely should have chosen not to waste so much time on the trophy stand after the game when training camp drills needed to be scheduled.

Oh, and DeflateGate died. Dead. No zombie possibilities here.

We do have a meatheaded argument ahead of us about which championship in the last year is the best, which can be settled here.

1. Leicester City, because 5,000-1 is 5,000-1, and the whole world understands that. Plus, there was invaluable three-month buildup that engaged non-soccer fans.

2. Chicago Cubs, because 108 years is 108 years.

3. New England Patriots, because . . . well, I don’t have to explain it unless you have no useful memory span. “Down 25 In The Third Quarter” is the new “Down 3-1.”

4. Cleveland Cavaliers, because they slayed the first unbeatable Warrior team by coming from 3-1 down, and even as a silver medalist, it will always be an internet meme, which is what passes for memorable in our decrepit culture.

5. (tie) Villanova basketball and Clemson football in a tie, because they were essentially the same great game.

7. The Pittsburgh Penguins, because the Stanley Cup Final was devoid of drama or high moments, and only 14:53 of overtime. Feh.

But everything else is settled, and this Super Bowl will not be topped for a long time. Our current cycle of absurd championships is almost surely going to end soon, because “Down 3-1” has happened twice in eight months (three times, if you count Warriors over Thunder), and the bar has now been placed well beyond reasonable clearing.

Indeed, the only thing left is for a championship team to spontaneously combust on the award stand. But if they do so and ignite Roger Goodell along the way, that would be an ending America would cheerfully endorse.

But that also isn’t an argument any more, and yes, that includes Gary Bettman.